Old Incognegro On The New State of American Blackness
This is why stories and representation are so important. They allow us to connect to an era from the perspective of a participant rather than a historian or data hound. When we experience something like The Great Gatsby or Boardwalk Empire, we can connect to a bygone era in a more meaningful way thanks to the human ability to get lost in a narrative and connect with characters. It’s easy to get the impression that historical American Blackness is all about enduring slavery until Lincoln said ‘people, let us stop,’ popular civil rights leaders being assassinated, and the first black person, whoever he was, that large groups of white people acknowledged for something. However, historical American Blackness is thick and long and filled opportunities for amazing and poignant stories. If you’re looking for something different, deep, and somehow topical, despite being set in the 20s and released in 2008, check out the graphic novel Incognegro, written by Mat Johnson with art by Warren Pleece.
Published by DC Comics‘ adult imprint Vertigo in 2008, Incognegro is about Harlem journalist, Zane Pinchback, who uses his ability to pass as white to investigate lynchings throughout the south in the early 20th century. When his brother is brought up on charges for the murder of a white woman in Tupelo, Mississippi, Zane rushes South to do whatever he can to clear his brother’s name. Incognegro was inspired both by the real life exploits of activist and writer Walter White, and the birth of Johnson’s twins, one of whom appears black and the other, white.
Originally given to me as a gift by a very good friend shortly after its release, my original reading of Incognegro was as a fast-paced and fun mystery with a few interesting twists. I enjoyed slick Harlem Renaissance living contrasted with good folks of rural Mississippi, and it was refreshing to see a comic with such a little-used setting that was filled with nuanced African American protagonists. I had pretty much forgotten about it until I saw it on a friend’s book shelf recently. Perhaps I’m more mature now than I may have been during my first reading, but this time Incognegro resonated far more deeply. Now, I sensed the purpose and depth that I had previously glossed over. I could vividly see the commentary on identity, race, gender and family. I could see how this narrative worked to prove how our seemingly opaque lines of division are all but invisible to those bold enough and talented enough to simply step beyond them – as well as the grave consequences of betrayal when they step too far.
The State Of American Blackness
As we continue to deal with the iconography of long standing racist symbols, it becomes ever more apparent that the aftermath of the American Civil War affects us as much today as 100 years ago. In this, Johnson’s Incognegro is almost eerily topical as the fear, rationalization, and deception of yesteryear are mirrored in the current state of race relations in this country. Every new era of American Blackness offers little new in the way of safety. The most significant enlightenment to be taken from Incognegro is the importance of using whatever abilities we have to advance ourselves along with others who share our struggle. To look out for one another is a principle dictum of American Blackness, because in a hostile world, it’s all you can do watch out for your brother and learn from your mistakes. Until then, Enjoy life. Read Comics.